“Melancholia”: When Worlds & Characters Collide

As Melancholia overwhelms Earth

The film begins with an overture of lush photography, but ends with an explosion. And even though we may know how this movie ends (with the Earth being “consumed” by a larger planet called Melancholia) we remain in our seats to see how these characters will react to the oncoming end of the world, and quite possibly, the end of life as we know it.

It sounds like the premise to a campy sci-fi movie of the 1940’s or 50’s, where the male hero of the story grabs his sobbing bride and says to her, “Don’t worry darling, everything will be alright”. But everything will not be alright in this story. There is no space shuttle that will rocket the characters to the moon or a hidden government facility that will randomly select people to repopulate the planet. In this story, the characters have no place to run and no ways of escape. They must sit and wait and accept their fate and even though we (the audience) know how it will end, it is the behavior and the reaction of each of the three characters that is most fascinating and heartbreaking to watch.

Justine: We don’t know what exactly is wrong with Justine. There is no doctor in the film to give us a diagnosis, and I prefer it this way. It is my personal diagnosis that Justine suffers from “extreme sensitivity”. What is “extreme sensitivity” you ask? Well, it’s hard to describe, but it is like a manic depressive whose intuition is strong. Someone with a hyper-awareness you could say, like that of an animal. Through the first half of the film Justine senses that something is wrong, just as the horses in the film sense that there is an oncoming danger. Her emotional reaction mirrors that of the horses; at first it is met with anger and sadness, but then acceptance and calmness. She was originally introduced to us as someone irrational and uncontrollable during her wedding reception, but by the end of the film, as doom comes nearer, she is the most understanding of the characters and her bravery is admirable.

Claire: Claire is Justine’s older sister and acts as the back-bone of the group by supporting Justine and calming her abrasive husband, John. She tries to remain optimistic about the oncoming Melancholia and not let her anxiety get the best of her, hoping that the planet will simply pass Earth like it had Mercury and Venus. But she has her doubts and when her skepticism turns out to be true, she loses the rigidity and structure of her persona and her body turns to mush. Even during the final seconds of her life, as the land around her is being ripped apart, she is a jello mold of nerves and cannot understand or accept why this is happening. After all, Claire is a mother and a wife and she had a lot to live for and she wanted so desperately to hold onto her life and let it grow. She never expected it to be ripped away so callously.

John: John is a well-to-do man, someone who has wealth and success. He reminded me of characters from classical science-fiction literature, a man of scientific theory and principle with a very straight and narrow mindset. He has no perception of gray matter or of what lies beyond rational thinking and science. In a way, he is a fool. John’s initial reaction to the oncoming planet is that of excitement, it is an astrological marvel that he wants to share with his son and wife. But when he learns that Melancholia is indeed on a collision course with Earth, he snaps and abandons his family. His body is found by Claire in the stables, a mangled heap, dead from an overdose of pills. So much for our leading man meant to protect our distraught and frightened leading ladies from disaster.

Melancholia is worth a watch for many reasons: for it’s portrayal of flawed characters dealing with the end of the world and their reactions to it which contradict their initial introductions, for it’s mixture of genre; science-fiction, disaster movie, and drama, but most importantly, for its emotional effect it has on you, the audience member. It portrays that big question that we all must one day face: death? (the word itself deserves a question mark after it).

Photograph by Charles Corbet titled Melancholia. The tone of this photograph matches the tone of the film.

After the film, I sat in my seat and listened to and observed the audience for a few minutes and I don’t think I’ve ever been surrounded by so many somber and saddened people. There was an applause and a few sniffles and I think everyone felt that it was nice to be emotionally charged after watching a film. Only a handful of films can do that in these modern times. I walked outside and the day didn’t feel the same any longer. I felt like I couldn’t continue living the way I had been. What if death really does come announcing itself? How would I react? Would I go to a used book shop and peruse the books on the shelf and then buy myself a nice lunch (which is what I ended up doing after the film) or would I slip away and succumb to madness?

I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

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